This week 1st to 7th July 2019 is Solitary Bee Week, celebrating some of our lesser known bee species.
There are over 240 species of solitary bee found in the UK and like our more familiar bumblebees and honeybees they are highly effective pollinators. Unlike these however the solitary bees (as their names suggests) do not live in colonies, although they will sometimes share nesting sites. Solitary bees are common and widespread, often found around our parks and gardens and tend to be very docile, making them a wonderful photography subject.
Since taking a keen interest in the hidden world of the solitary bee I have discovered many striking, beautiful species and even some fascinating behaviour to be found on my own doorstep!
The patchwork leaf-cutter bee has been the focus of my recent photography projects and has to be my favourite species of solitary bee.
Patchwork leaf-cutter bee in foliage
These bees are quite small, around the size of a honeybee but with a much stockier appearance and a large head which accommodates a set of powerful jaws (more about those later!).
You may just be able to spot those jaws in this photo below
Both males and females are dark in colouration but with tufts of golden hair on the face and body giving them a rather fluffy appearance. Males as with most insects, are considerably smaller than the females.
Male leaf-cutter bees
The female of the species has a distinct brush of hair beneath her body, which she uses to collect pollen as she flies from flower to flower. During feeding these bees often lift their abdomen, revealing the brightly coloured pollen gathered in these hairs, as shown below.
This female had bright orange pollen on her underside, clearly not from this purple geranium
Whilst the patchwork leaf-cutter is striking to look at, it is the bees’ behaviour which really captured my interest.
The female leaf-cutter bee is an industrious little creature and truly fascinating to watch. She nests in cavities, utilising suitable holes in the walls of our homes, among plants, dead wood or in bee boxes. She then uses leaves to line her nest, neatly cutting away circular segments from plants with her powerful jaws.
These bees can often be seen flying through ours gardens and appear to be surfing through the air on these leaves as they carry them back to their nests.
After several failed attempts, I was eventually able to catch this behaviour on camera as this female began her destruction of my neighbours rose bush.
Wobbly video footage below. In the quiet of the garden I could even hear the crunching of her strong jaws piercing through the leaf membrane!
Clinging to the edge of a leaf the female patchwork leaf-cutter begins chewing through the tough leaf in a perfect circular pattern, gradually detaching the segment from the main portion of the leaf as she clings on with her legs.
Below is a sequence of this behaviour in action
With herself and the cut section of leaf dangling precariously the female leaf-cutter folds over the leaf before biting through the final piece, allowing herself and the leaf to drop from the plant.
She then beats her wings furiously to gain height before her and leaf are grounded. Carrying the leaf beneath her, the added weight makes flying and manoeuvring difficult resulting in a slow, clumsy flight.
Despite this, it’s still not easy capturing them carrying a leaf in flight, these were my best attempts.
Female in flight carrying a leaf
This female had to stop for a brief rests with her leaf before she was finally able to make the final push to her nest high up in a wall cavity.
Patchwork leaf-cutter bee resting, still clinging to her leaf
Once back in her nest chamber she chews these leaves into a pulp and uses them to line the nest, and eventually plug the entrance. This keeps her young fed and safe inside until they emerge the following spring.
On one of her many visits this bee became entangled in a spider web and I watched for an anxious few moments as she struggled to free herself from the sticky strands.
Caught in a web
Thankfully no spider appeared and the bee was eventually able to escape, although despite her best efforts her leaf remained tangled. The leaf-cutter bee was finally forced to abandon it and return to the rose bush to start again!
Trying to free her leaf
If you would like to find out how you can help solitary bees read here!
Share your photos and sightings on social media – #solitarybeeweek
All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography 2019 ©
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